A Tribute to the of

I recently saw the Justice League Unlimited 2-part episode entitled "The Once and Future Thing" and thoroughly enjoyed it.  The writers managed to come up with a way for Batman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman to spend time in both the old West, meeting up with the likes of Bat Lash and Jonah Hex among others and then to end up 50 years in the future, where they encounter an aged Static Shock, Warhawk and an aged Bruce Wayne along with his protégé from the "Batman Beyond" series.  There was even a brief cameo by Hal Jordan as Green Lantern.  I got a particular kick out of watching Bruce Wayne interact with his younger self as Batman.  That, in part, led me to the subject of this edition of the Silver Age Sage as we continue our salute to the 70th anniversary of what we now know and love as DC comics.  The last tribute, of course was Action #1 from the 1930's and since my last review was of a World's Finest magazine, which of course features Superman and Batman, the time seems ripe to sandwich it with Batman #1 from the Spring of 1940 which not only gave our favorite cowled crime fighter his own self-titled magazine in addition to his top billing in Detective Comics, but introduced his most lasting and lethal foe, the Joker!

The 1974 reprint of this classic tale from my collection begins with a tribute to Bill Finger by DC Comics Publisher Carmine Infantino. Next is a two-page featurette, reprinted from Detective Comics #33 just before the story itself.  It's titled "The Legend of the Batman" by Bob Kane and the uncredited Bill Finger, subtitled "Who he is and how he came to be!"  The opening lines should sound rather familiar:  "One night some fifteen years ago, Thomas Wayne, his wife and his son were walking home from a movie...  The Wayne family is accosted by an armed robber who demands the necklace Mrs. Wayne is wearing.  When Thomas objects, the thug guns him down.  Mrs. Wayne cries for help and meets the same fate as her husband.  The gunman flees, leaving a grieving Bruce Wayne behind.  Days later we see young Bruce kneeling by his bedside, offering a sort of prayer:  "And I swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals."  The following panels show the progression of Bruce Wayne:  As the years pass, Bruce Wayne prepares himself for his career.  He becomes a master scientist.  Trains his body to physical perfection until he is able to perform amazing athletic feats.  Then finally, the fateful night when he sits in his study, gazing into the fireplace:  "Dad's estate left me wealthy.  I am ready.  But first I must have a disguise.  Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts.  I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible…a…a…"  As if in answer, a huge bat flies in the open window.  "A bat!  That's it!  It's an omen…I shall become a bat!"  And thus is born this weird figure of the dark…this awesome avenger of evil.  "The Batman!"

On now to our untitled story (by Kane & Finger) with the debut of the nefarious Joker.

The story opens in the living room of an elderly couple who are enjoying a quiet evening at home, listening to their radio when the tall, free-standing piece of furniture crackles with static and then a toneless voice comes over the airwaves announcing that at precisely 12 midnight, he will kill Henry Claridge and steal the Claridge diamonds.  "The Joker has spoken!"  The music program returns and the horrified wife exclaims that that Claridge, the well-known millionaire is in danger.  Her husband pooh-poohs the notion, comparing it to the War of the Worlds broadcast and insists it's a hoax.  Unfortunately he is very wrong. 

We now switch scenes to the home of Henry Claridge, who is frantic over this threat to his life and is surrounded by police in the entryway of his home as they watch the inexorable movement of the grandfather clock.  Finally the stroke of midnight and the relieved Claridge exclaims that he is safe.  In the next horrifying moment, however, he gags and falls to the floor, dead.  Then, his face twists into a grotesque post-mortem grin:  A grim indicator of the Joker's handiwork that will be repeated again and again.  The police then check Claridge's safe, only to discover that the valuable diamond has been switched for a fake and that a Joker playing card has been left behind as well.

The story shifts again.  "Not far away sits a man—a man with a changeless mask-like face—but for the eyes.  Burning, hate-filled eyes!"  The grim visage of the Joker is shown for the very first time as he gloats to himself of his clever crime.  He'd injected the sleeping Claridge precisely 24 hours before with the toxin and removed the diamond at the same time.  "A man smiles—a smile without mirth—rather a smile of death!  The awesome ghastly grin of—the Joker!

Inevitably, we segue to Wayne Manor, where Bruce and his young "aid," Dick Grayson, discuss the recent murder.  Dick is anxious to pursue the Joker, while Bruce, lighting his pipe, explains that the time is not yet ripe. 

An uncertain amount of time has elapsed and a sinister routine begins anew when the Joker announces another murder and robbery victim over the radio waves.  This time it is to be Jay Wilde and the Ronker's Ruby.  Again we see a highly agitated man desperately watching the clock, surrounded by another cordon of police officers.  As the clock tolls the hour the grim scene is repeated when Wilde utters a strangled scream and collapses.  In the following moments a strange gas descends and overcomes the police.  Then a suit of armor becomes animated and the Joker is revealed.  His malevolent grin reveals his satisfaction at having used his venom successfully again, though in this case, it was a concentrated dose on a blow dart to Wilde, while the spray used on Gotham's finest only causes temporary paralysis.  As the Joker departs he notes the "joy" he's brought to this gathering with their telltale grins.

While the law searches for the murderous Joker, his activities have not gone unnoticed by the underworld, whose members are jealous and outraged at his success on their turf.  Brute Nelson instructs his associates to spread the word that he's gunning for the Joker.  Batman, though his contacts learns of Nelson's plotting, too and decides it's time for some action. 

We soon find Brute Nelson in his living room, accompanied by his pistol, waiting.  Soon the Joker bursts into the doorway, but his entrance is quickly answered by Nelson's henchmen emerging from a nearby room in the house.  Then, just to make the party complete, the Batman appears at the top of the stairs and vaults downward, hurling himself into the midst of criminals and swiftly putting them down.  In the confusion, the Joker takes full advantage and shoots Brute Nelson before slipping out the window.  Batman gives chase and as the Joker pulls away, the Dark Knight jumps onto the rear of the vehicle.  Apparently Robin has been getting to him, too as he utters, "Hasn't this boy heard its leap year?"  Working his way along the cars running boards (its 1940, remember?) the Gotham Goliath grips the Joker's gun hand, wrestling him for control.  The vehicle careens off the side of the bridge and the two struggling figures tumble to the bridge.  The Joker lashes out viciously and sends Batman tumbling into the river.  The cold water revives our hero and he swims to shore while his quarry escapes. 

Once again we rejoin Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson at Wayne Manor where a familiar voice emerges from the radio:  "Judge Drake, you once sent me to prison—for that you will die!  Death will come at ten!  The Joker has spoken!"  Another vigil takes place within the hour at the Judge's home.  He paces nervously while the Chief of Police reassures him that each entrance is guarded.  He invites the judge to play cards with him while they wait.  As the Chief wins a hand, an odd and wicked grin crosses his face as he displays a Joker.  "You can't win anyway—you see, I hold the winning card."  The terrified judge realizes his is in the presence of the Joker and soon he joins the fate of Claridge and Wilde, his face twisted into the grotesque grin from the Joker's venom, the Joker playing card inserted into his hand.  The "Chief" then departs on the ruse of going back to HQ as their mission has again failed.  Meanwhile, Robin, who has been dispatched to keep watch on the Judge's home, follows the "Chief" to an old deserted house.  As he enters, carrying a rather low-tech candle, he is clubbed from behind by the disguised Joker. 

Back at the Judge's home, we find the Batman also lurking about and wondering after Robin.  He pulls out an infra-red light, designed to track the luminous chemical treatment from his and Robin's boots and is soon hot on the trail of his partner.  He arrives at the house, crashing through the window just as the Joker, shed of his disguise, is about to inject the Boy Wonder with his venom.  A fierce battle ensues and the Joker is thrown against a nearby table laden with volatile chemicals that burst into flame.  In the confusion, the Joker grabs the spray gun and uses the paralyzing venom spray on Batman, leaving him to perish in the flames.  Batman's iron constitution serves him well, though, as he overcomes the spray and pulls Robin from the engulfing flames of the burning house.  Robin then reports that the Joker was boasting about his next caper; to steal the Cleopatra necklace.  The Dynamic Duo immediately set out for the home of Otto Drexel, owner of the necklace.

We now see a dark figure preparing to enter a penthouse from a rooftop doorway when Batman leaps from a nearby scaffold to take on the Joker.  As he advances upon the madman, the Joker empties his pistol.  Fortunately, the World's Greatest Detective has planned ahead and is wearing a bullet proof vest.  The madman leaps from the rooftop to the construction site next door only to find Robin lying in wait.  Using his famed athletic abilities, the Boy Wonder sends the murderer flying, right into the mighty arms of the waiting Dark Knight who puts him down for the count with a mighty left hook. 

The headlines of next morning's edition of the Daily Star announce that Batman has captured the Joker, neatly depositing him on the steps of police headquarters.

A last visit to Wayne Manor shows Dick and Bruce discussing the case.  Dick wonders about the terrible grins on the mouths of the Joker's victims.  Bruce explains that it was a result of the drug used by the Joker, pulling the muscles of each corpse's face into a grotesque semblance of a grin.  The final panel shows the Joker's own wicked grin from behind bars, vowing that he will, in fact, have the last laugh.     

This story was another pure classic from the Golden Age and probably provided some of the Gold making it Golden.  As I've mentioned in past reviews, the Joker is the longest continuing running villain in the DC universe.  This original appearance set the tone, too.  He was and is a ruthless, amoral murderer, using his bizarre visage and methods to terrorize the night in Gotham City.  He is the perfect counterpoint to the Batman and the two have been locked in a violent struggle ever since.  As a matter of fact, they've been matching wits, with the Joker coming up short, for 65 years now.    

Please remember to join us again in approximately two weeks for the next trip into the vault where we'll enjoy another sampling from the finest DC has to offer.  Feel free, as always, to express yourself, too.  I can be reached via e-mail at professor_the@hotmail.com.

Long live the Silver Age!

© 2000-2005 by B.D.S.

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